Mentoring has been getting a bad rap over the past few years. As the battle to get and keep more women in leadership positions rages on, and endless versions of the same strategies and programs are tried with mixed results, mentoring seems to have been labeled as an old school strategy and no longer something that will contribute to cracking that proverbial glass above our heads (It’s so far beyond time for a new metaphor, how about an entire new paradigm?).
When Sylvia Ann Hewlett published her book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, the mentoring train seemed to have well and truly left the station. And when Sheryl Sandberg wrote in, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, that “searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of searching for Prince Charming,” the train kind of came off the tracks right there.
Now, to be fair, neither Sandberg nor Hewlett were saying you should forget about mentoring altogether, but they were certainly sending a message that it’s not a critical strategy for your career success. But the truth of it is that mentoring works. Whether it’s through an informal one-on-one relationship or a formal organizational program, mentoring consistently gets results for both the mentor and the mentee—when set up with the right intention and managed with the right level of structure and accountability.
And yet so few women, it seems, actually have a mentor. According to trend research report “Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn’t She? A Global Study of Businesswomen and Mentoring,” 63 percent of women have never had a mentoring relationship, even though 67 percent of the same women rate mentorship as highly important to advancing and growing their careers. Even more staggering is research from career networking website Levo League that reports a massive ninety-five per cent of millennial women have never sought out a mentor at work. So why the gap?
In many cases, women who work in organizations without formal mentoring programs have less access to mentors and enjoy fewer benefits from the relationship when they do have one, as reported by non-profit organization Catalyst in Making Mentoring Work, and this is a frequent barrier to advancement. So if you are working in a business that does have a formal program, get engaged in it and make the most of the opportunities it can provide.
However, we also know that one of the main reasons women aren’t engaging in mentoring relationships is that they are simply not asking. As one woman, an executive in a pharmaceutical company reported in the previously mentioned Women as Mentors study: “It’s like walking up to someone and asking them to be your friend, and no one does that.” And yet ironically, seventy-one per cent of women in the study reported that they always accept invitations to be formal mentors in their workplace.
It’s important to note that asking the right person is of critical importance. Walking up to a complete stranger who you don’t know and asking them to mentor you in a completely vague way, as Sandberg and even Oprah Winfrey report happens to them all too frequently, is not a great strategy. This is entirely different from making a well thought out request to someone you know, as I will cover shortly.
Why should you bother seeking a mentor?
I know you’re busy. So you may be reading this thinking that getting a mentor is just another thing to add to your endless to-do list. You may also still be thinking that if you just keep your head down, work hard, and produce results, that the work will take care of itself and that you really don’t need to waste time on these extra and perhaps nice to have relationships.
But I’m sorry to say that you’d be wrong for making these assumptions. The Women and Men in U.S. Corporate Leadership: Same Workplace, Different Realities report found that having an influential mentor was among the top career advancement strategies for senior women executives, and numerous research studies state it as critical in the early stages of your career. I also know from my own experience of having mentors and from the endless stories I hear from women who have nurtured and navigated successful mentoring relationships, that they can be powerful beyond measure—when you get the secret sauce right.
So what will you get out of it?
Mentoring relationships are highly valuable to help you learn, navigate, grow, and obtain or hone your skill sets. They can significantly fast track your career in many areas; learning how to manage the politics of your workplace, understanding how to advocate for yourself and negotiate a pay rise, working out how to get the right balance in your work and life, asking for professional development opportunities, or just understanding how to ask, period. Working with the right mentor, or mentors as you may have more than one, can be an essential element in your career progression, your understanding of self, as well as your IQ and EQ when it comes to your office dynamics.
How can you ensure mentoring success?
A question I am often asked is how do you actually make a mentoring relationship work? There are some guiding principles I recommend you follow when requesting, setting up, and managing your ongoing mentoring relationship. Here is your checklist to enable mentoring success.
Work out specifically why you want a mentor– as you think about your personal brand, career trajectory and what you are grappling with in the short to medium term, get honest with yourself about what you really need. Political navigation, negotiation skills, confidence tips, work-life balance, reality checking—get clear on your why—so you can ensure you ask the right person to support you.
Set your intention– it’s important you are clear on your intention for the relationship and what you would like to gain from it. So many engagements fail because the mentee is too ambiguous on why they are there in the first place. By getting clarity for yourself, you will not only maximize your gains, but you will ensure you don’t waste the time and energy of your mentor.
Find the right person to ask – typically you would seek out a mentoring relationship with someone you want to learn from. Take a look around inside and outside your current organization, and think about who has knowledge or experience that you could benefit from. Your future mentor could be a senior manager in your business who has a particular skill set you want to obtain, or a management style you want to emulate; an industry leader you admire for their thought leadership in an area you wish to develop; a peer who has a particular skill that would help you become more well rounded; or even a team member, particularly if they are from a different generation, who can reverse mentor you on certain things.
Decide what your ask is – what exactly are you asking for? Receiving a request to be a mentor with no parameters or specificity is a huge frustration by anyone who has ever been approached, ourselves included. Get clear whether you are asking for a monthly formal meeting, a thirty-minute coffee catch up once a quarter, or a more informal call, as you need them. I prefer sending an email with a clear request outlined, rather than a phone call or face-to-face request where the person is on the spot and has to respond instantly. Be clear about what you’re seeking, why you are asking them specifically, and how you envisage the relationship would work. Remember to not be greedy in your initial request, and be very respectful of the person’s time, energy, and schedule.
Manage the logistics – You need to be the driver of the actual meetings. Whether that means speaking with the mentors assistant to give them the necessary details of the meeting, to booking the meeting room, or initiating the phone call, take charge and make it as easy for your mentor as possible so that all they have to focus on is giving you the best advice possible. You should also go into every mentoring session with an agenda. This could be a simple list of dot points you would like to discuss or a specific question you want to focus your entire session on. In some sessions, it’s fine to chat and see what comes up for you, but in most instances, have an agenda to make the most of the opportunity in front of you.
Follow up– Most mentors like to be kept apprised of your progress as you work together over time. Whether that’s sending your mentor an email after a job interview, giving them feedback after a big presentation you sought their advice on, or sharing the result from a pay rise negotiation, keep them in the loop and provide feedback on how their advice and guidance impacted your performance and outcomes.
Give thanks– Gratitude is a really powerful tool in any relationship, but especially in a mentoring one where the mentor is giving up their time and hard-won advice, for free. From a simple thank you email, to a phone call or hand written note, ensure you are expressing your gratitude for their support in a way that is meaningful and heartfelt.
Don’t over stay your welcome– The last tip here is not to drag out the relationship. It’s a good strategy to set a time frame at the start of the mentoring agreement. Margaret is a senior executive in a large bank who takes on five new mentees at the start of each year for a strict twelve-month relationship. Regardless of what happens during that time, she concludes the mentoring at the end of the year. She also sets clear goals with the mentees and holds them accountable throughout the time they work together. Your relationship with your mentor may go for three, six or twelve months, but stay tuned in to when it has run its course for either or both of you, and exit graciously. As with any relationship, getting the magic right between mentor and mentee can be a hard ask, but it’s a critical part of any successful mentoring partnership. Keep your mind and options open, and be willing to give the relationship time to click into place.
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